Dance-punk outfit The Juan MacLean made a triumphant return in September with In A Dream, their first album since 2009’s exceptional The Future Will Come. From the first note of the epic opening song “A Place Called Space,” it’s evident that the collaboration between John MacLean and Nancy Whang has grown stronger and more mature. With flashes of disco peppering their synth-tastic tracks, their third album finds TJM at the top of its game.
We caught up with MacLean and asked the eloquent producer/musician about the evolution of TJM’s sound, the passing of his good friend and musical collaborator Jerry Fuchs and why sad songs say so much.
The Juan MacLean’s In A Dream is out now on DFA. The Juan MacLean’s remix of Sharon Van Etten can be heard here.
The news remains incredibly grim. How do you stay grounded amid all of this nonstop global tumult?
John MacLean: There is always a lot of terrible stuff going on in the world at any given time. With the Internet, however, we are exposed to it constantly. In fact, people seem to revel in posting bad news type things on social media. I just opt out of it in general. I do yoga almost every day, which is the centerpiece for keeping my head together. And of course there is always the music, I am always lost in music to some extent.
Do you agree with Elton John that sad songs say so much?
From a very young age I have gravitated to sad songs. One of my early childhood favorite songs was “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel. It’s a pretty heavy song for an eight-year-old. But for most of my life it is the sad/melancholy music that I love. Neil Young is probably my favorite artist of all time, the one that I’ve listened to the most. Something like Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” is another mainstay, or Nick Drake. Lots of early New Order strikes the tone, Leonard Cohen, even Kraftwerk mostly sounds pretty melancholy to me. The funny thing is, sad songs don’t tend to dominate mainstream popular music. But historically I would argue that they have the longest staying power.
I know you’ve experienced loss since the release of The Future Will Come. How have you navigated through it all and how does what goes on in your life affect your music?
Maybe not overtly, but my personal life is definitely woven into the music I make. There are obvious lyrical references to real life events, either directly or impressionistically, but also the music itself is a product of our experiences. Loss is a part of every human beings life on this planet, and eventually we will die, almost certainly. A very American way of dealing with death is to propose these ideas that the person is “in a better place,” or that we should work very hard in a systematic way to get over it. I don’t believe in “a better place,” when you die you are just gone, that’s the end. It’s an idea I find life-affirming. It means we should make the most of the time we have now. Also, I think there are some losses we never get over. Part of it is that we don’t want to. The loss of Jerry [Fuchs] is something I’ll just never really get over. It altered the course of my life in many ways. It’s a complicated relationship that touring/recording musicians have with each other.
“When I was younger I had jobs like building concrete foundations, house painting/carpentry, and delivering beer. They were all back breaking, soul-crushing jobs, physically and mentally exhausting. So complaining about carrying around a fucking record bag to different cities around the world, while getting paid a fair amount of money, getting put up in a nice hotel, basically living a dream life, is ludicrous.”
Jerry Fuchs made such an impact on every project he was part of with his drumming. What is your fondest memory of him?
There are so many moments, I can’t nail down one. But in trying to remember any defining story, I realize that they all make me laugh. He was a very dark guy, but also very funny, and we loved to laugh at the same things. This is the kind of person I have mostly gravitated to in my life, people who are pretty dark and intense who at the same time seem to revel in absurdity and laughing about it all. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism for that personality type.
The musical interplay between yourself and Nancy has really evolved into something quite special on the new album. It’s especially noticeable on “Charlotte.” How do you reflect on the evolution of your musical partnership?
It’s been an evolution of addressing the question of how to make vocals a more dominant part of the music. Having Nick Millhiser on board with production for this album made a pretty difference in that regard. In the past my approach was fitting vocals over existing instrumental tracks. I think Nick is coming from a place that is more vocal oriented, maybe from working with Alex Frankel with Holy Ghost!, so he thinks more in terms of sculpting the instrumental to fit the vocals. In general, though, the partnership of me, Nancy, and Nick was pretty magical. Each of us seemed to bring a complimentary attribute to the equation. For example, during most studio sessions Nancy would mention pizza at some point, which always raised the level of productivity, hearing the pizza guy ring the buzzer for the studio, pizza in hand.
From spending a lot of time with In A Dream, I feel a lot of positivity and hope in the lyrics and music. I especially seem to get that every time I listen to “Love Stops Here.” What’s that song about?
That song started a few years ago with one conceptual lyric idea. I was on a plane one day flying to a DJ gig, and I realized I would never sit on a plane with Jerry again. It seems like an idiosyncratic notion, but it’s one of those things as a traveling musician that makes sense. It was a combination of the idea that Jerry’s death had put an end to the touring band at that time, and then how I was immediately on the road DJing constantly. I became aware that I was traveling as much as possible in order to escape everything. Living on the road is very enticing — there is little responsibility beyond showing up for flights and gigs. And then there is the fallout from this life on the road. The life you leave behind back home, the emotional toll of the solitary life on the road. I have two kids, and they’ve grown up with this, with me leaving for weeks or months at a time, in order to do the thing that I do to support them. Jerry and I often talked about this, and what life would look like as we got much older. I know that all of this has made me pretty hard to deal with on the level of interpersonal relationships. I’ve became hardened in some ways, self-reliant in a way that looks impossible for people to break through.
Having seen TJM perform live I can attest that the band brought “it” live. Where is TJM with regard to performing and touring?
Nancy and I are talking about getting the band back on the road for early 2015. It will be the same setup: live drums, another synth/percussion player, me and Nancy. Our approach has always been about pulling off playing this sequenced electronic music in a way that is compelling and sounds good. I think it is astonishingly boring watching people do “live” sets on a laptop. It makes no sense to me. Aesthetically it’s a nightmare. You see someone staring at a laptop screen, and it’s almost always a MacBook, which is the computer most of the audience is using either for work and/or for wasting their lives on social media. It just sets a bad tone.
“I think it is astonishingly boring watching people do ‘live’ sets on a laptop. It makes no sense to me. Aesthetically it’s a nightmare.”
DJing has been a part of your musical world. What’s your relationship with mixing records?
I love DJing and it’s something I’ve always taken very seriously. There are times I do use CDJs or use them in conjunction with vinyl, but for me the soul of DJing lives in playing records. Human beings, as a group, will always sink to the level of what is easiest. So faced with buying and traveling with a bunch of records, which is a lot of work, or just turning up to a gig with a couple of USB drives that fit in your pocket, of course most DJs have opted for the latter.
Most of the excuses I hear are pure bullshit. The one that makes me the angriest is the complaints about a bad back from carrying a record bag, or just generally how difficult it is to carry them around. I guess these people have never met anyone who works at any sort of manual labor job. When I was younger I had jobs like building concrete foundations, house painting/carpentry, and delivering beer. They were all back breaking, soul-crushing jobs, physically and mentally exhausting. So complaining about carrying around a fucking record bag to different cities around the world, while getting paid a fair amount of money, getting put up in a nice hotel, basically living a dream life, is ludicrous. One complaint that is totally valid, however, is that turntables became increasingly unusable in clubs. However, lately I’ve noticed an improvement as more DJs are playing vinyl again, especially in European clubs.
Nowadays it’s commonplace for DJs to have someone snap a picture of them with their back to the crowd and share it on social media, almost congratulating themselves on a gig well played. Have you — or would you — ever take such a pic?
I hate having my picture taken while DJing; I think it’s absurd. Unless you are from the EDM world, where the DJs are jumping around a lot or yelling at the crowd to have a good time, I don’t see the point. It is very distracting. You have this photographer relentlessly taking pictures, and you know that the reason they keep moving around trying different angles and whatever is because you aren’t giving them anything that looks very compelling. And then this makes you self-conscious, and instead of concentrating on the music you’re thinking about this fucking photographer.
At the greatest club in the world for real DJing, Berghain/Panorama Bar, there is no photography allowed, and you really notice it now when you are there. I believe it started there simply because it was a place where people were doing things that they might not want the outside world to know about. This is a very liberating idea. I played at Panorama Bar a few weeks ago and a couple of hours into my set looked up and there was a girl standing there who had taken her top off, she was totally naked from the waist up. Whatever her reasons for doing this, she got to do it without it living on in infamy on Facebook or whatever. If photography were allowed there, you would have immediately had a load of people taking her picture, she would then be the center of attention. Instead it just maintained the atmosphere of “this is a place where anything goes.”
“Happy House” is one of my all-time favorite club tracks. It seems to me that you touched on the zeitgeist of the moment and created a classic. How do you look back on that song? What goes through your mind when you listen to it now?
I actually haven’t listened to it in a couple of years. Having one of those types of songs is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it solidifies your place as someone who made a sort of iconic or defining track of the times, and this is something for which I’m very grateful. It takes a lot of luck, being in the right place at the right time, and definitely isn’t something that can be planned. On the other hand, I feel sort of haunted by it, knowing that I’ll realistically never make a track will have that sort of impact. And it’s a bit disheartening when you meet fans and they say ‘I’m a big fan, I love “Happy House,”‘ and I’m standing there like that was six years ago, I’ve actually made other music since then.
What’s the best thing about being John MacLean right now?
I have remained unsullied by not making much money and having little commercial success.